by Peter Bearse MAXIMUSMAY@aol.com
What's the Problem? -- The grass roots are drying up
Ever since the founding of our nation, we have thought of ourselves as being a young country, yet the United States of America is now the oldest constitutional democracy in the world. Our uniquely American democracy is the light of the world. It is our finest and most valuable export in terms of beneficial national influence. Yet, even as the torch of liberty is lit and relit in countries around the world, the grass roots of our democracy have been drying up in our own backyards. As we export our democracy abroad, it is deteriorating here at home.
Ever since the founding, we have been an optimistic people -- labeled as brashly optimistic by many, especially cynics soured by history. Yet our own recent political history should give us pause. Evidence of disease in the body politic has been turning up all around us for years. The symptoms are getting worse; negative trends have not yet turned the other way. We see them in declining voter turnouts, low participation in the political process, rising apathy and cynicism regarding both politics and government. Not least is decreasing faith in the ability of our elected officials to solve problems, even those currently "in the news," let alone those that have nagged in the background for years. Inability of "the system" to deal with important issues is the prime reason political pundit E.J. Dionne attributes to Why Americans Hate Politics, the title of one of his books1.
Yet the underlying factors behind the symptoms run much deeper than lack of action on the issues or problems of the day. The latter come and go. Some of the more cynical commentators even go so far as to say that the political system doesn't solve problems; it just recycles them. The causes of the cancers afflicting American politics run deep. Historical roots going back at least 150 years were revealed many years ago by Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man.2 Even though Sennett was writing as a social psychologist and historian, not a political forecaster, much of what he had to say foresaw our current predicament. His book is a good example of a maxim that we should try to honor -- that we need to select from the best of the past in order to build a better future. Rather than get sidetracked by a discourse on what we can learn from history, however, we will draw from it as we go.
When we or our doctors try to diagnose a physical disease, certain questions are asked and answered, such as: How do we feel? What is our temperature? Blood pressure? Heart rate? Carry this analogy over to politics. How do we feel about it? Is it an object of hate? Not really. Hate is also a verb. It suggests that someone may act. At this point, what prevails is arguably more dangerous for the present and future of our Republic -- passivity and utter indifference. At least at election times, most people feel politics is important and do their best to pay some attention to political goings on. What really bothers us, however, is that it's not our game; it's somebody else's. It's not "us;" it's "them." We're not taken seriously except as consumers of the propaganda that political actors euphemistically call "literature" or that Congressmen count as "newsletters" if it's on paper, and "media buys" if it's on TV.
Those of us who haven't tuned out politics completely may read or watch. We can hardly help ourselves if we turn on the television news or glance at a newspaper, with lurid, attention-getting headlines and sharp 'sound bites" hardly failing to get our attention even in spite of ourselves. We may even listen; some of us may even vote, albeit reluctantly, faced as we so often are by what Dionne has described as "false choices" in terms of issues and/or "the lesser of two evils" with respect to candidates. But does our participation count for anything in terms of either time or money -- NO.
Note the inclusion of money in the latter statement. But for the single-digit percentage of us who have been lucky enough to be involved in a political committee or campaign in situations where our time commitment counted for something, we know how lightly the value of our time is weighed..But money? Yes, money, too. Except for a tiny percentage of an already miniscule proportion, those who have served on candidates' finance committees know that their opinions and participation, too, count for little. The politicians and their handlers take the money and run. The political pro's have taken over. The flowering of the professionals' approach to politics and their dominance of campaigns is a major part of the problem. The "pro's" may be destroying the system that feeds them.
The latter can be seen in high relief in the debate now going on concerning campaign finance reform. Commentators and analysts across the political and media spectrum agree that "the system is broke." One major reason has already been implied: Politics is a spectator sport, no longer one in which citizen volunteer players count as a significant factor. This is part and parcel of rising reliance upon expensive media, especially TV advertising. The latter feeds, and is fed by, increasing reliance upon professionals in campaigns and political committees.
The connection between escalating campaign costs and the media is documented by a report of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (CSAE) entitled "Use of Media Principal Reason Campaign Costs Skyrocket." Political "pros" are partly compensated by pulling down a percentage of each media "buy." Their role continues to increase as increasingly sophisticated target marketing techniques borrowed from business are applied to marketing candidates like detergents and other commodities. One candidate for statewide office in Massachusetts who is also a cable TV consultant even goes so far as to say: "It's not TV; it's the paid consultants!" (who are the main source of campaign cost inflation).
A simple, startling fact about the debate on campaign finance reform highlights our basic problem - the issue of reform has been defined entirely in terms of money! No stronger indicator of the irrelevance of political participation can be found when it is ignored by those most concerned about "reform." Isn't it ironic that those overwrought about the increasing dominance of money in politics define the issue of reform entirely in terms of money? Apparently, the only political commentator who argues differently is former Congressman Mickey Edwards, now at the Kennedy School. He has stated that "participation" should be a prime goal of reform efforts. Yet, even he has failed to observe that a basic weakness of all of the versions of campaign finance reform now before the Congress, like Heinz' 57+ varieties, is that they place no value on people's time -- even though tiime is all that the overwhelming majority of the American electorate have to contribute. The "atrophy" of the system observed earlier is evidenced by the mere 3% who volunteered to help during the last (1996) election cycle - even less than the 4% who contributed money.
One can read article after article on campaign finance reform and find no mention of people's participation as a factor to be considered, let alone as a goal to be honored. A quote from one of them suggests that analysts and commentators are making an implicit assumption -- that political volunteerism has declined to the point where it does not merit even an honorable mention, it has become such a negligible factor:
"As money becomes the resource of choice in campaigns, the parties depend less and less on the vanishing volunteers of the grass roots and more and more on the organizational capacity to raise large sums of money."3
The role of local political party volunteers was last featured by national media in the 1992 Presidential campaign. A network TV news item at the time showed precinct workers in Chicago going door-to-door for Bill Clinton. During the 1996 campaign, no such vignette was featured, yet another sign of the decline of local political participation.
Claims have been made by some involved in the "Clean Money" campaign that public financing of campaigns, by reducing the importance of large, private contributions, should induce more citizen participation. As yet, however, such claims have not been substantiated. One cannot point to voting statistics for Presidential elections -- the one Federal example of public financing -- for any inkling of support in this regard. It certainly has been heartening to see significant numbers of volunteers helping to get "Clean Money" initiatives on state ballots. It remains to be seen, however, whether such campaign finance reforms in Maine and other states can be associated with increases in political volunteerism, political turnouts and other reversals of trends affecting regular election campaigns that elect people to office.
We seem to have gotten caught in a vicious circle. As the influence of money in politics increases, people's participation is less important. As participation is less important, more and more services that have been provided by volunteers need to be purchased. So campaign costs and the importance of money continue to go one way -- UP. Curtis Gans, Director of CSAE, recently stated:
"If more than 50 percent of the campaign budget goes to media and an average of 30 percent goes to fund raising, and the rest goes to candidate travel and staff, there is nothing left for any activites involving people. It is little wonder that American politics is withering at the grass roots."4
Similar testimony has been heard from the California Voter Foundation:" A vicious cycle is now going on even at the local level for local elections: Political consultant involvement increases the money to be raised. The more money is raised, the more likely consultants are used. They go up and up." [as reported by National Public Radio (NPR) News, Sacramento, 2/16/98 ].
Another reason why political volunteerism has been overlooked may lie in the backgrounds of the authors of reform articles, studies and reports. The reform literature has been produced by another variety of "pro's"-- political scientists, writers, journalist and commentators, many of whom are otherwise known as political "pundits." Many have made fine contributions to "the literature" as a political candidate might say. Some of these contributions will be acknowledged in later chapters. One is hard put to identify authors of any significant contributions to the reform literature, however, who have any experience "laboring in the vineyards," especially who have invested significant amounts of time working on campaigns, running for office themselves and serving in elected office. One exception mentioned earlier, Mickey Edwards, has had such experience.
Lack of direct political experience can easily limit or color one's perspective on political reform. An analogy from the arena of reforms in business practices may be apropos. Relying on professionals to diagnose and prescribe reforms in politics with no experience of politics is analogous to American manufacturers, pressed to respond to the Japanese challege of the '80's, at first failing to elicit suggestions for improvement from those on the shop floor. In contrast to other books on political reform, this relies upon the author's political experience and that of others "laboring in the vineyards" as prime sources of intelligence. The perspectives to be offered, therefore, may provide inputs into the political reform debates that are at least as refreshing and, hopefully, as significant as inputs "from the shop floor" were to business reforms and the renaissance of American manufacturing.
There have been some encouraging developments arising from non-political quarters. Among the most important are:
v Increasing attention to the quality of our "civic life," primarily via community-based initiatives supported by several major foundations;
v The "public journalism" movement, promoted by the Kettering Foundation and others;
v "National Issues Forums" and reports reflecting how or why people get involved or fail to get involved in politics, also supported by the Kettering Foundation.
Seeing the promise of these, one can only hope that over the long term they will help to reverse the negative trends noted earlier. Even a sympathetic monitor of these initiatives like the author, however, may be struck by a curious limitation or blindness among them. With rare exceptions, they do not directly come to grips directly with the political process or proposals for political reform.5 Papers on "reviving civic culture" in The Kettering Review, for example, discuss a variety of "intermediary" organizations or community-based initiatives without mentioning political committees or their activities among them. The League of Women Voters (LWV) counts as its "coalition partners" a similar variety of local organizations without ever citing local party committees, who have traditionally carried out voter registration and "get out the vote" (GOTV) activities.6 One can cite example after example of the same sort.
Thus, inadvertently and ironically, the approaches to "reform" stemming from other, "non-political" quarters help to underline the importance of the explicitly political thrust of this book -- to rebuild the American political community from the ground up. Like the non-political types, the reforms featured herein seek to re-engage people in public life but, unlike the non-political types, they would do so by discarding the disingenuous, emasculating and ultimately self-defeating assumption that there is an effective "public life" without participation in electoral politics. Such an assumption appears to underlie what one commentator calls the "Goo-Goos" approach to campaign finance reform.7 Arthur Lipow indicts the latter more strongly and convincingly. He shows that the "Goo-Goos" approach is a direct legacy of the "Progressive" movement, which "debased (the) American political system" and led to "undemocratic" reforms, including those "post-Watergate."8 Lipow goes on to claim that current efforts at "reform," especially those advocating public financing of electoral politics, will further undermine the American democratic system.
The latter, in turn, suggests there may be a dangerous dynamic at work whereby efforts at "reform" may have unintended, counterproductive consequences. They could even be one of the leading causes of a "vicious cycle" affecting American politics. Intellectuals, foundations, not-for-profit organizations and others concerned with the quality of public life in the U.S.A. lament the major, negative, long-term trends in political participation cited earlier. Then they proceed to support projects that shy away from any involvement in electoral politics, be it the activities of parties, political committees, campaigns and candidates. Thus, they further reduce the capability and repute of these basic parts of our political "infrastructure." These parts thereby are less likely to receive support, and so forth -- negatives feed negatives. This is analogous to "lemons" behavior observed by economists. If a system has acquired a reputation for producing "lemons" it is less likely to attract talent to turn things around, so the negative reputation is enhanced and things get worse.
It would be tragic if we were to let the flower of American democracy continue to wither and die even while the seeds we had planted abroad grow and flourish. Economists, management gurus, futurists and others say we are in the midst of a great transformation even greater than that characterizing the age of industrialization.9 Indeed we are. The forces of science, technology and business are tranforming our lives. Compared to the progressive dynamics of these, our politics and government seem locked in limbo and lagging, hopelessly unable to keep pace. No one would deny that we are in an era of rapid, unsettling change and increasing complexity.
An era of complex change has implications for the life of a great democracy that will need to be drawn out in many ways. This book, however, honors the desire for simplicity. It starts from some simple premises, cites many "ordinary" examples, and ends with some simple conclusions. The freedoms we have won can never be taken for granted. The roots of democracy need to be watered and cultivated by each generation. Lincoln's words at Gettysburg need to be honored in action: "That a nation of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth." That means a system OF and BY, not only FOR. With rights go responsibilities.
One basic premise of the forthcoming book from which this article is derived is that neither "technology," nor "professionals", nor trying to "make a difference" only through community-based, non-political activities will improve our politics and enable better government. Only a broad cross section of the American people, "ordinary" citizens, getting involved in politics themselves will suffice to reclaim the process as their own, for US, not THEM. As "Granny D" (aka Doris Haddock), who is walking the country at age 89 to arouse support for campaign finance reform has said: "We must take our country back."
We can. It's not hard. The concluding chapters in the forthcoming book cited in footnote #1 will indicate how. Try it, you'll like it. The book's appendices will provide a wealth of resources and linkages. You're not alone.
FOOTNOTES 1 Peter Bearse, Ph.D., is President and Economist, Development Strategies Corporation, Gloucester, MA. Feedback from readers would be gratefully received, via telephone (508-281-6992, fax (508-281-6588), e-mail (DSC2000@aol.com) or snail-mail (47 Pleasant St., Gloucester, MA 01930-5944). 2 As referred to by Manfred Schroeder (1991) (and many others in similar terms). The phrase "geometry of nature" is Mandlebrot's, from the title of the second edition of his seminal book (Mandlebrot, 1977). 3 Bruno Latour, in his book WHY WE ARE NOT MODERN, challenges the "modern"/"pre-modern" distinction and shows just how artificial it is in many ways. 4 This point and its larger implications have been elaborated by Stephen Toulmin in his book COSMOPOLIS (Toulmin, 1994). 5 The distinction between a "constitutionally liberal" democracy, arising from "the American system," and "plebiscitary democracy," arising from the "the French (Revolution) model," is an important one which has been well made recently by Zakaria (1997). The former is based upon "an avowedly pessimistic conception of human nature;" the latter, upon "faith in the goodness of human beings." The distinction was made earlier by Lipow (1996), who shows how the American model, especially if shed of its "Progressive" era overlays, is the basis for a truly democratic system while the French model is fundamentally undemocratic. REFERENCES Barnsley, Michael (1988), FRACTALS EVERYWHERE. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. Becker, Ernest (1975), ESCAPE FROM EVIL. New York: The Free Press. Blake, William (1789 and 1794, respectively), SONGS OF INNOCENCE and SONGS OF EXPERIENCE. ."Auguries of Innocence," the poem referred to in the text, can be found in Erdman, David and Virginia (1995), WILLIAM BLAKE: BLAKE'S SELECTED POEMS (pp. 42-45, as edited by the Erdman's). New York: Dover Publications, Inc. CAIDA (Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis, 1998), "Skitter" @ WWW.CAIDA.org [See, for example, "skitter.topas.gif" for "data results in a spanning tree structure" (20 February). Clampitt, Amy (1993), WHAT THE LIGHT WAS LIKE. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Garrison, Peter (1989), "Glued to the Set: What hath Mandelbrot wrought? An amateur's guide to the fractal universe," HARVARD MAGAZINE (January-February). Handy, Charles (1994), THE AGE OF PARADOX. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press. Katel, Peter (1997), "Bordering on Chaos," WIRED (July). Kellert, Stephen H. (1993), IN THE WAKE OF CHAOS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Latour, Bruno (1993),WE HAVE NEVER BEEN MODERN. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Lipow, Arthur (1996), POLITICAL PARTIES & DEMOCRACY: Explorations in History and Theory. London: Pluto Press. Mandelbrot, Benoit (1977), FRACTALS: Form, Chance and Dimension. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman; the second edition of which was issued in 1982 under a new title: THE FRACTAL GEOMETRY OF NATURE. _______________ (1999), "A Multifractal Walk Down Wall Street," SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN (February). Martinez, Vincent J. (1999), "Is the Universe Fractal?," SCIENCE (16 April). Musser, George (1999), "Practical Fractals," SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN (July). Olson, Charles (1951), "Human Universe," ORIGIN: A Quarterly for the Creative (Winter '51-'52) ____________ (1960), THE MAXIMUS POEMS. London: Jargon/Corinth. Peters, Tom (1987), THRIVING ON CHAOS. New York: Harper and Row. Renault (1996), "Total Quality Management at Renault." Paris: Editions Gallimard for Regie Nationale des Usines Renault S.A. Schorer, Mark (1959), WILLIAM BLAKE: THE POLITICS OF VISION. New York: Vintage Books. Manfred Schroeder (1991), FRACTALS, CHAOS, POWER LAWS. New York: W.H. Freeman & Co. Toulmin, Stephen (1994), COSMOPOLIS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. West, Geoffrey B., James H. Brown and Brian J. Enquist (1999), "The Fourth Dimension of Life: Fractal Geometry and Allometric Scaling of Organisms," SCIENCE (4 June). Williams, William Carlos (1958), PATTERSON. New York: New Directions Books. Zakaria, Fareed (1997), "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy," FOREIGN AFFAIRS (November/ December) Zeldin, Theodore (1994), AN INTIMATE HISTORY OF HUMANITY. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. The article was drawn from a forthcoming book of the same title. Feedback would be gratefully received by Peter Bearse at 16 Broad St., Merrimac, MA 01860, tel. no. 978-346-0617, E-mail: DSC2000@aol.com.